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The First Thanksgiving

November 26, 2009 - 4:28pm
Nick Coons by Nick Coons


Most people identify Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims' first great harvest, but few people think about how it came to be. The myth spreads that the Indians showed the Pilgrims how to grow corn, and that lead to the end of famine. In reality, the Pilgrims continued to face food shortages for three more years until the harvest of 1623. What changed?

Prior to this point, a communistic set of property rights was in place. All families contributed to the plantation's single farm. All food harvested was owned communally and distributed based on need and equality, regardless of the amount of effort contributed to growing the food. At the same time, families were forbidden from growing their own crops. Plantation Governor William Bradford wrote in 1647 that the method of property rights instituted bred the rise of resentment and a decrease in productivity. Younger men that were more able to produce didn't care for having to work more than their neighbors in order to feed their neighbors' wives and children.

With starvation looming, the colony decided to try a different method of property rights. The land was divvied up, allowing each family to own and plant their own land, and keep whatever they produced. In essence, the incentives changed, thereby encouraging each family to produce as much as possible. William Bradford wrote, "And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression."

And so it was a respect for property rights and a capitalistic-like system that lead to the great feast that we recognize today as the first Thanksgiving.

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